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Occasional posts on subjects including field recording, London history and literature, other websites worth looking at, articles in the press, and news of sound-related events.

07 June 2010

Sounds from the Sonic Tuck Shop: interview with Felicity Ford

WHAT HAVE SHEEP, sweets, tape recording clubs, domestic routines, knitting and the A4074 got in common? They all fall into place in Felicity Ford’s original, inventive pattern of sound art interests. For a while now I’ve enjoyed reading her reflective and playful blog The Domestic Soundscape, and wanted to write something about it, but couldn’t summarise her work without missing something that seemed important.

So, taking Mark Peter Wright’s Ear Room interviews as inspiration, I emailed five questions to Felicity, and here are the answers she very kindly sent back.

What are you working on at the moment?

I’m working on several things; the main project is a radio/podcast series about my commute along the A4074 road between Reading (where I live) and Oxford (where I study.) I drive along this road regularly, but the sound of my engine drowns out anything else which may be heard along the route, and the 60mph speed limit prohibits any detailed examination of the environments I pass through en route. I am interested in using the radio-making process as an opportunity to discover all the sounds, places and communities that I miss from within my car, and in seeing how this endeavour changes my relationship to the journey.

As part of this, I am developing a sound walk for World Listening Day on July 18th and I intend to release a knitting pattern for a LISTEN HAT; a hat designed to remind the wearer to think about listening.

I am also developing The Sonic Tuck Shop book, based on the sounds of food and cooking. This book is going to extend the idea of the graphic score to forms like recipes and shopping lists, and celebrates the idea that we can all be making music all the time, through performing everyday tasks such as buttering a piece of toast or opening a sealed jar of jam. I currently have an installation based on this book in the window of an old shop in Reading.

Academically I am working on my PhD thesis and on a paper for a conference at Bournemouth this September. I am also working with Martin Franklin and Paul Whitty on the Sound:Site conference, scheduled for October 2010 at South Hill Park.

Finally, every day I try to write about a specific sound for my ongoing text/print project, SOUND BANK.

What does sound give to your work that text and images can’t?

Sound describes space and time in ways that images can’t. You can frame a photograph in such a way as to make a small room look big or a cluttered room look tidy, but it is much harder to create comparable illusions in sound. For instance if you record something in a large, echoey Church, it is difficult to remove the resonant acoustics from the resultant recording. Similarly, sound recordings are durational and contain moments of time, and this I think has an interesting relationship to memory. Listening through to my sound recordings, I often find myself remembering whole sequences of events or specific situations because of details in the sounds that I would never have thought of documenting with text or images. I once went through some files and found a recording of my tent zip opening, and was immediately transported back to that tent, to the light inside it, and even to the specific smell that I associate with camping. I don’t think any photographs or words could evoke so immediately that physical memory of being somewhere, and I think this is because things take exactly the same amount of time in a recording as they do in real life, whereas a text description or an image can happen in a different time frame.

Perhaps because of these connections to physical space and real time, I find sounds far more tactile and corporeal than images or text. Sounds describes textures in incredible detail, conveying information about how substances behave and feel, and I think that images can often fail to fully communicate this material aspect of reality. Consider for a moment the difference between the sound of greaseproof paper and the sound of tinfoil and you will know immediately what I mean. In a flat image or even in a description, it would be difficult to give a sense of the precise qualities of those two materials, whereas a few seconds of hearing tinfoil flapping about immediately describes its fine, brittle, metallic constitution and you only need to listen to someone packaging a sandwich up in greaseproof paper to mentally imagine its crisp, impermeable qualities.

I also like the physical experience of listening. Someone whispering very close involves a literal intimacy which I think would be difficult to recreate through imagery; the sound travels a very tiny distance and physically resonates inside my head. I can see someone very close up – like the faces in a Sergio Leone movie – but I never have the sense of images physically touching my eyes, whereas soundwaves can very definitely be felt.

What these aspects of sound give to my work is an enhanced appreciation for the material world and the details of what Georges Perec has dubbed ‘the infra-ordinary,’ or things which seem so obvious and fundamental to us that we never deeply examine or explore them. I think that working with sound adds physicality, time and space to images and text; I use images and text all the time so I don’t want to discount their power either, but there is something distinctively textural and tactile about sound which draws me again and again to working with it.

Photography used to be a heavily male-populated medium, and sound recording still seems to be so. Have you had to make your own world, so to speak?

This is a complex question to answer!

In some ways I identify with Bobby Baker when she talks about being an artist in the 1970s and making the decision to work with cake in an art world overwhelmingly dominated by men making abstract, highly formal metal sculptures. Like Baker, I am interested in redeeming situations, materials and contexts that we generally deem to be worthless (such as storecupboard ingredients, the home and housework.) Like Baker – who developed a whole work out of the idea of celebrating her technique for peeling carrots – I am interested in revising how we view everyday things and actions, and in dismantling the established hierarchy that dictates what we should consider worthy of artistic contemplation, and what we should not.

I do find that sound recording is a realm largely populated by men and at the risk of making grossly sweeping statements, I have observed that this means sound recording is often compartmentalised away from everything else in life as a unique ‘category’ of activity, and that talk of shiny, expensive equipment sometimes dominates conversations!

However, these trends have never been a barrier to my making work or finding inspiring exceptions, and whenever I have had specific ideas or questions the online sound recording community has been very generous and forthcoming with answers. I don’t know a great deal about recording equipment because 1. I can’t afford to buy much fancy kit and 2. I’m far more interested in context, content and methodology than in abstract issues relating to equipment and technical specs. Also, it is crucial to me to decompartmentalise sound recording in my own practice and to contextualise it as an activity within a broadly creative approach to living. In these respects I suppose I work against some prevailing trends within the male-populated medium of sound recording, but I am certainly not alone in taking this approach and I do not see myself as having created a kind of separate ‘world.’ Even when working principally with context and content, a degree of technical recording expertise and competence remains essential if the work is to be comprehensible, and as better equipment is increasingly available for me to borrow from my University, I find I am more interested in understanding its capabilities, so I am not totally disinterested in technical talk when I can put it into practical use!
 
I guess my blog – The Domestic Soundscape – is a kind of ‘world’ or imaginative thinking space, and I would say it is different from other recording blogs because it is full of things that are not at first glance specifically about sound. Contemplative writings and sound recordings are jumbled in with accounts of my life, my relationships, recipes I have cooked, knitting projects I am working on, etc. It is enormously important for me to contextualise sounds like this – as part and parcel of ordinary reality – but the development of the blog has not been so much about dealing with the male-dominated nature of sound recording, as building my own distinct language for describing and critiquing the world around me, and making a conscious decision to integrate an appreciation of everyday sounds into an overall imaginative approach to being alive.

The critic Milton Shulman believed the ‘ravenous eye’ was dominant in the age of electronic media. What are the prospects for the appreciation of everyday sound?

I am optimistic and would say the prospects for the appreciation of everyday sound grow better by the day – especially in relation to electronic media. Sometimes I feel everyday sound has even become a bit fashionable, with the likes of Jarvis Cocker teaming up with the National Trust to produce a sounds album! The British Library is another National Institution fostering a greater appreciation for everyday sounds with their sound map project, and massive projects like Bill Fontana’s River Sounding at Somerset House build the profile of everyday sounds in the public imagination.

Also platforms like Audioboo plus greater access to recording technologies mean that the sharing of sounds online is a more and more feasible undertaking for non-specialists and the general public. I think an appreciation of everyday sound grows in relation to access to recording and publishing technologies, because I think that everyday sounds become more interesting when we are able to document and discover them through amplification.

I was recently excited, for instance, to see how many people recorded or commented on the silence of the skies when the volcano ash prohibited flying temporarily; Audioboo contains a few really evocative recordings and commentaries by various users. To me this is exciting news; it says people are imaginatively contemplating and commenting on our relationship to everyday sound, and I am interested in how electronic media is facilitating that process. 
 
Which other sound artists or sound-based projects would you like people to know more about?

There are some blogs which I think are worth subscribing to for some interesting perspectives on sound. I love Alun Ward’s commentary on marathon training, and the early morning recordings that he makes when he is out running: [blog no longer exists at 27/5/2015]. I also love the recordings on Michael Raphael’s blog – he adds some nice explanations to his sounds, and they are always really beautifully recorded: http://sepulchra.com/blog/. And I have recently come across Denis De Bel, whose work I really enjoy for its sonic treatment of everyday objects like crackers and vacuum cleaners: http://www.dennisdebel.nl.

PS: I totally forgot to mention Jennifer Walshe, whose scores and approach to sounds is a major inspiration to me! This is her website URL: http://www.milker.org. And since I mentioned her, Bobby Baker’s website is well worth a look for context, though her work is not strictly about sounds: http://bobbybakersdailylife.com.

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